Derision for Bush with hints of a deal

By Guy Dinmore

Financial Times

Published: October 30 2004

Osama bin Laden's last- minute “October surprise” for the US presidential campaign on Friday raised the spectre of another al-Qaeda attack on America while deriding the leadership of President George W. Bush.

In his first videotaped appearance for 13 months, Mr bin Laden also seemed to suggest some kind of possible accommodation, just as he offered Europe a truce last April in exchange for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and other Muslim lands. “Despite entering the fourth year after September 11, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you and therefore the reasons are still there to repeat what happened,” he said, according to a trans-lation by Reuters.

“Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands, and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe,” he went on, speaking in measured tones from a written text and appearing in reasonable health.

The tape was broadcast by al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television station. US authorities had access to the tape some hours before.

The US Homeland Security department kept its terror alert unchanged at code “yellow”, or elevated risk. US media reports earlier in the week had suggested an easing of fears of a terrorist attack just ahead of the November 2 election.

Experts said the al-Qaeda leader was seeking to project an image of strength, demonstrating an ability to put in an appearance whenever he chose, but that he could also be acting out of weakness. They doubted he was trying to influence an electoral outcome to his liking.

“Would he have a preference between Kerry or Bush? I doubt he cares,” said Judith Yaphe, Middle East expert at Washington's National Defence University. She suggested his anti-American message could be directed at the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, where al-Qaeda has been weakened by the security forces and its popular appeal diminished by attacks that killed Muslims.

Comparisons were made with the bomb attacks on Madrid last March, which threw the Spanish general elections into turmoil. John Zogby, a pollster, noted that it was the mishandling of that crisis by José Mar´a Aznar, prime minister, that cost his party the election. Mr Zogby said Mr bin Laden's impact this time would depend on the reaction of the two candidates.

“But it could also regenerate the Kerry base by powerfully suggesting that the public enemy number one is very much alive and has not been trapped,” Mr Zogby added. “The ball is in Kerry's court. He must be quick and resolute.”

Richard Holbrooke, a senior foreign policy adviser to Mr Kerry, described Mr bin Laden's intervention as an outrageous attempt to intimidate Americans. But, speaking on CNN, he was quick to point out thatthe Bush administrationhad failed to catch him,a recurrent theme of the Democrats. “We should have captured him. But we haven't,” Mr Holbrooke said.

However, Cliff Kupchan of the Nixon Center, a think-tank, suggested the re-appearance of Mr bin Laden would not help the Kerry argument.

“Bin Laden showing he is alive and well can only help Bush,” he said. The US urged the government of Qatar, where al-Jazeera is based, to put pressure on the station not to broadcast the tape. A US official said the network was acting as a free platform for terrorist propaganda.